Keeping An Eye On the Inauguration

New system enabled law enforcement to view many security cameras at once.

VSee hardware is shown as it appears installed within a security system.
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One of the toughest technological challenges for law enforcement is to simultaneously monitor live feeds from the wireless security cameras scattered across their jurisdictions. A nearly impossible task under any circumstances, the need became even greater in law enforcement’s efforts to safeguard the millions of visitors and residents in Washington, D.C., for Barack Obama's presidential inauguration.

In response, law-enforcement personnel adapted a commercial "virtual office" system called VSee, which was originally created as a telework instrument. By shrinking the cameras' data-streaming bandwidth to a fraction of its original size, the technology was adapted to enable security officers to watch multiple remote cameras in real time from a single command center. Even police cruisers were able to access the feeds via cellular networks.

“One of the problems with video conferencing is there is not enough bandwidth to get high-quality video to the decision makers,” said Milton Chen, the chief technology officer of VSee, the company that markets the technology.

VSee is a combination of hardware and software that allows users to securely receive and share large amounts of information, usually within a virtual office environment. Chen began developing the technology as a graduate student  at Stanford, where he focused on videoconferencing and remote collaboration.

Chen wanted to find a way to capture the advantages of telework without the usual technical shortfalls and impact on office social dynamics. Existing collaboration tools limited the remote work experience in significant ways. Handicaps included difficulties sharing on-screen applications, limited webcam feeds and poor video, which can cloud the critical social cues necessary for remote communication.

“When people talk about remote collaboration, they’re mostly talking about meetings,” said Chen. “VSee is designed for the work that happens outside the meeting.”

Within the remote-work system, all users can clearly see each other at once, work together on an on-screen document or other object, and trust that their environment is secure from intruders. It bypasses the constraints of various communications protocols and has the potential to span many platforms, including wireless.

And unlike a virtual meeting, the VSee platform is on all day, with options for privacy, so it becomes a true virtual office environment.

“You want to see enough visual information to get an ambient awareness of your coworker, but not so much that you feel spied on,” said Chen, whose company uses the product to link workers in Silicon Valley, Boston, Pittsburgh, The Netherlands and Singapore.

For the Inauguration, the interface stayed the same, with each camera taking the role of a "user".  With VSee managing the bandwidth, security officials could for the first time keep all cameras active and share awareness of situations in real-time to law enforcement officers anywhere in the city.

The technology allowed a half-a-dozen area law enforcement agencies to exchange information and collaborate in real-time.

While security applications are still new, the system's adoption for telework has expanded rapidly since its release in 2003, with several Fortune 500 companies and federal agencies adopting VSee for remote work or for traceless, secure collaborations.

“Our goal is to create a remote experience like a start-up company bull pen,” said Chen, “where you cram 10 or 20 people into a small area and have really ad hoc, constant communication.”

VSee was developed with National Science Foundation support as part of the federal government’s Small Business Innovation Research Program.

  • Click here for a video of Milton Chen.
  • VSee Web site: vsee.com.
  • —By Josh Chamot/NSF.

    This report is provided by the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, in partnership with U.S. News and World Report. For more information, go to www.nsf.gov.